It is too soon to say whether the Group of Twenty summit in London on 2 April 2009 has brought closer the world economic crisis closer to an end. The effect of the unimaginably vast sums of money (or at least figures) that were declared available to lubricate a blocked credit system will be an early sign. No one knows too whether the plan of United States treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, to clear up the vast toxic assets remaining in the system will work. The potential for further damage is ever-present.
Among openDemocracy's articles on the G20:
Larry Elliott, "From G8 to G20: the end of exclusion" (16 November 2008)
Katinka Barysch, "The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009)
Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" (26 March 2009)
Will Hutton, "The G20 deal: power bends to protest" (29 March 2009)
Daniele Archibugi, "The 20 ought to be increased to 6 billion" (31 March 2009)
Stephen Browne, "The G20 summit: a transition moment" (1 April 2009)
Saskia Sassen, "Too big to save: the end of financial capitalism" (1 April 2009)
David Hayes, "The G20 and the post crisis world" (3 April 2009) - with contributions by Paul Kingsnorth, Susan George, Duncan Green, David Mepham, and Ann Pettifor
There is more clarity about the statement by Gordon Brown that the G20 meeting was the beginning of a "new world order" of progressive cooperation. The British prime minister is at least halfway right. This is indeed the start of a new world in international relations, and it is time to look closely at its architecture.
The two-step illusion
What happened in London was in one sense a great step towards a new realism: that is, replacing a G7/G8 that reflects the economic realities of at best the 1970s (if not of Bretton Woods) with a G20 that can claim to represent four-fifths of the world's gross global product and well over half its population. Even more, this creates a process that almost inevitably entails further moves towards greater "representativity".
It is long overdue. The process of rethinking the distribution of power in leading international institutions is a belated acknowledgment of the changing global balance. China is at its heart. The Beijing leadership wants its country's "peaceful rise" - including a decade and more of 10% annual growth - to be recognised and rewarded. If the Chinese are to make a major contribution to the greatly increased capital of the International Monetary Fund, for example, it will be hard to resist their claim for more than 4% of the IMF's voting rights.
A key question is whether the process of change will be gradual or sudden. It has become modish in some diplomatic and journalistic circles to speak of a G2 - the United States and China - as a future steering-committee within the G20. This is unrealistic, as well as undesirable. After all, the American economy is now slightly smaller than that of the European Union, and it has long lost the dominance of the immediate post-1945 era. Moreover, China's own economy is now in aggregate roughly the size of Germany's - but the disparity in populations means that it delivers an average income per head around 10% of most western European countries.
In any case, the relationship between China and the United States is very different from a traditional great-power competition, in a way that limits the potential to forge a "duumvirate". It is neither a traditional commercial rivalry nor a military contest, but a novel and in some ways very strange relationship: China is creditor, investor, supplier of cheap consumer goods, ideological and diplomatic competitor. Chinese economic growth has been heavily dependent on exports to the United States (and even more to the European Union).
In addition, neither power has any territorial claims or ambitions of a traditional kind on the other; though in Africa and perhaps elsewhere China aspires to a sphere of influence that challenges American hegemony. China cannot yet remotely threaten American military dominance, though there are signs that the Chinese government is intent on building up its military (including naval) capacity.
There may come a time when the world is divided between Chinese and American alliances, and strategic changes in world politics do tend to come faster than anyone expects. But for the foreseeable future, China will not be a superpower in the way that the United States has been since the implosion of the Soviet Union.
An end to "number one"?
But if the "multipolar world" - long discussed in academic seminars and journals of international relations - is now becoming a reality, what will be the effect on the world's networks of influence?
The United States is in a class of its own in military power. But other countries and groups of countries - China, India, the European Union, Russia, perhaps some alignments of the Islamic world - are able to resist or divert American power in various ways, or are in a position to help Washington achieve some goals it cannot achieve alone.
The United States now needs help in international affairs. It cannot save its own environment without cooperation. It cannot rescue its own economy without help from Europe and China. It is no longer self-sufficient in energy. Its irresistibly great military power is not in practice much use.
The signs are that President Obama understands this, at least on one level. He has sent clear signals that he wants to leave behind the unwise arrogance of the George W Bush administration and its more intransigent figures - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton; and to seek more cooperative relationships.
But there is a catch. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union the preferred model of the world in the United States - among conservatives and liberals, among politicians and military officers, journalists, policy-makers and a clear majority of citizens - has not been a G7/G8 one or a G20-type one; it is most unlikely to be a G2 one. It has been a G1 model.
Most Americans in these two decades came proudly to embrace the image of their country as the lone superpower. Barack Obama speaks of a new, more tactful and more subtle style of leadership. But he is still an "American exceptionalist". He still takes his country's leadership in the world for granted - even if his speeches during his European tour (in London, at the Nato summit, in Prague, and in Turkey) have been artful in their restraint and appeals to cooperation. The American people too expect him to be what American journalists have long called the president of their country: the "leader of the free world".
This is not an elected title - or if it is, it is a title awarded by an electorate amounting to less than 5% of the world's population. Yet until recently it did represent a reality, one acknowledged by many and perhaps most of the world's other leaders. When Madeleine Albright called her country the "indispensable nation", she was not boasting. She was expressing a perception that was widely, indeed almost universally accepted.
It was not just that no other nation had the strength to compete for leadership with the United States. No other nation then wanted the burdens of leadership. Now this too may - may - have begun to change. Perhaps Americans, while happy to be number one, are now longer willing (even if they are able, which is a big "if" in the middle of an economic recession) to carry the burden of leadership.
A new narrative
In 1999 I wrote an article in which I spoke of the "grand narrative" of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called the "short 20th century". The breakdown of the uneasy diplomatic equilibrium of the 19th century in 1914 had led to world war and economic catastrophe. That in turn led to fascism, to another world war, to genocide and to the division of the world between an American and a communist power-bloc. That led to the cold war, and in the end to the collapse of European communism.
I connected the end of that grand narrative to "the death of news". Because the citizens of the United States and western Europe were no longer frightened of war, they had turned away from the affairs of the rest of the world and concerned themselves with their own preoccupations and fears: of poverty, failure, loneliness, ill health and death. War, they imagined, was something that happened in "faraway places of which we know little".
It is interesting to ask whether the attacks on Washington and New York in September 2001 would have happened if news organisations in America and western Europe had not sharply cut back their coverage of international affairs. However that may be, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the crisis in Pakistan and the stalemate in Palestine, and now the economic disaster resulting from the crimes and follies of "Anglo-Saxon capitalism", have the public's full attention.
They sound like the ominous overture to a new and potentially dangerous world in which the United States still sees itself as G1, but may be less able and less willing to carry the responsibilities of a world leadership that is more heavy and difficult than ever.
Can Washington, given its apparently unshakable attachment to Israel's interests, solve the problem of Palestine? Can it repair (or "reset") the breach with that testy and ambitious rival, Russia? Can it save Pakistan for democracy? Bring Iran into the comity of nations? Feed Africa? Halt climate change? Rebuild Wall Street or Detroit?
No American president has started with more personal ability, or more sheer goodwill from around the world, than Barack Obama. But a successful tour of Europe has if anything highlighted the scale of the tasks he faces, and the problems he may have in bringing the American people along with him in the effort.
A new narrative is unfolding. A lot depends on whether the world is nearer the end (1991), middle (1945) or beginning (1914) of the "short 20th century". The plot is still open.
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.
Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)
His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)
Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:
"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)
"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)
"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)
"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)
"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)
"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)
"Change?" (2 December 2008)
"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)
"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)
"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)
President Barack Obama joked in his press conference on 24 March 2009 that the euphoria of his inauguration two months earlier had lasted only a single day. The hope he had the audacity to proclaim is not yet dead. But - even as he prepares to leave for a trip to Europe that will encompass the G20 summit in London (2 April), the Nato anniversary summit jointly hosted by France and Germany (3-4 April), and visits to the Czech Republic (4-5 April) and Turkey (6-7 April) - the future prospects of his presidency are already in the balance.
Among openDemocracy's articles on the economic crisis:
Willem Buiter, "The end of American capitalism (as we knew it)" (17 September 2008)
Ann Pettifor, "The week that changed everything" (22 September 2008)
Will Hutton, "Wanted: a fairer capitalism" (6 October 2008)
Avinash Persaud, "Europe's financial crisis: the integration lesson" (7 October 2008)
Paul Rogers, "A world in flux: crisis to agency" (16 October 2008)
Andre Wilkens, "The global financial crisis: opportunities for change" (10 November 2008)
Simon Maxwell & Dirk Messner, "A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II" (11 November 2008)
Larry Elliott, "From G8 to G20: the end of exclusion" (16 November 2008)
Krzysztof Rybinski, "A new world order" (4 December 2008)
Paul Rogers, "A world in revolt" (12 February 2009)
Katinka Barysch, "The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009)
Krzysztof Rybinski, "There is no zombie free lunch" (18 March 2009)
Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" (26 March 2009)
Will Hutton, "A G20 deal: power bends to protest" (29 March 2009)
With great courage, Obama has insisted that he would stick to his promises to tackle long-term failings in American society, even as he struggled to heal the economic crisis. He continues to press for these reforms - in climate-change policy, healthcare, public education, dependence on imported oil, and growing inequality - even as he grapples with the blocking of credit and the terrible unemployment that is one of its consequences.
The week of 23-29 March saw a new twist: the emergence of a deadly dilemma that the president has to resolve. He has learned that he cannot unblock credit without going a long way to appease the interests of the bankers who caused the problem in the first place. At the same time he has become aware of the rising fury among everyday Americans triggered by the huge bonuses paid to executives at AIG, the giant insurance company that in 2008 posted the biggest losses in American business history.
Everyone agrees that the knot that has to be cut is the astronomical quantity of "toxic assets" poisoning the balance sheets of American banks - as well as those European banks (the Royal Bank of Scotland, Paribas, Deutsche Bank and UBS among them), which thought it was clever to copycat every Wall Street fashion.
The plan unveiled by Obama's treasury secretary Timothy Geithner on 23 March hands to the banks the juiciest of "sweetheart" deals to persuade them to buy up what Geithner calls "legacy assets" (the financial crisis has given free rein to American public life's culture of euphemism).
The president's vice
Geithner's plan distinguishes between securities based on truly valueless loans and those whose value has simply been depressed by the economic downturn. It proposes that the treasury and "private investors" - which in practice can only mean the investment banks, commercial banks and hedge-funds which created and invested in the toxic assets in the first place - will buy equal amounts of the unsaleable assets. But private investors will only be able to do so thanks to a far larger injection of money to be lent by a government agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).
Altogether it is calculated that private investors will contribute 6% or 7% of the money to clean up the banks' balance-sheets. The taxpayer, in the shape of the treasury and FDIC, will put up more than 90%. That, in the good old days before Wall Street collapsed, used to be called "leverage" of perhaps thirteen-to-one. With government standing behind them to that extent, why wouldn't the banks buy trash at prices kited with government money?
Timothy Geithner makes much of the importance of keeping the rescue in the private sector, which it patently is not. He also speaks warmly of the professional skills that will be devoted to the task by the very speculators who brought the economy to its knees.
The liberal economic intelligentsia don't like it. Jeffrey Sachs calls it a "massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to bank shareholders". In a deadly back-of-the-envelope calculation he estimates that the plan will hand $276 billion - even today a not inconsiderable sum - directly from the taxpayers to bank shareholders (see Jeffrey Sachs, "Will Geithner and Summers Succeed in Raiding the FDIC and Fed?", VoxEU, 25 March 2009).
The Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman dismisses the plan as not much more than a revival of the George W Bush administration's plan to absorb the banks' toxic assets: just more "cash for trash". The economist and former labour secretary, Robert Reich, and the Columbia University scholar Joseph Stiglitz are equally acerbic (see Edward Luce, "America's liberals lay into Obama", Financial Times, 27 March 2009).
The co-editor of The American Prospect and respected commentator, Robert Kuttner, says the Obama administration has chosen "the most expensive and risky way of trying to recapitalise the banks, and the least likely to succeed". Kuttner also identifies a point that is likely to be the target of much angry criticism, namely that the president has turned to "the same Wall Street crew" who failed to handle the situation under the Bush administration, and indeed who were largely responsible for what went wrong in the first place: Robert Rubin, Laurence Summers, and their protégés (see Robert Kuttner, "Geithner's last stand", Huffington Post, 22 March 2009).
If anyone had any doubts about who would benefit from the Geithner "public-private partnership", they had only to watch how the stock market responded. Bank shares overall rose by 10% in the aftermath, but the biggest banks that have survived did better than that. Citigroup was up 19%; Bank of America shot up 26% in heavy trading; Wells Fargo's shares rose by 24%, and J.P. Morgan Chase's by 25%. A day later, however, the wave of market enthusiasm had subsided.
The truth is that Obama now finds himself in a new vice. He feels he needs people from Wall Street to solve the street's problems. That is one reason why it has taken him so long to fill the key jobs at the treasury under Geithner. At the same time he clearly underestimated the rage Main Street citizens feel both at the AIG bonuses and the broader proposition: that while they face losing their jobs and their homes because of the folly and greed of the financial sector, the only people who walk away laughing are the folks who caused the disaster in the first place.
No wonder that questions are being asked about the ubiquitous presence of present and former executives of Goldman Sachs in the Obama administration, just as in the ranks of its precedessor.
A time to choose
Barack Obama showed in his long campaign for the presidency that he is a very skilled politician. He is also by temperament cautious, even conservative. His instinct is to "reach across the aisle" in order to cure what he sees as the excessive partisanship of the years since the "Reagan revolution". He is too a patient man. But now he understands that he has got to move fast if he is to save the hopes of his presidency (see "Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis", 6 February 2009).
In this the president is both beneficiary and victim of larger historic forces. The same event that cleared his way to the White House, the financial crisis symbolised by the fall of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 15 2008, may have made it impossible to govern; or at the least, may mean that he will have to sacrifice at least some of his hopes of long-term reform (see "The week that democracy won", 29 September 2008).
In the short term, in order to heal the financial crisis it looks as though he has had to put the fate of his administration in the hands of the men from Wall Street.
Amid the stock-market panic of 1907, the financier JP Morgan was surprised that President Theodore Roosevelt didn't "send your man to fix things up with my man". It couldn't be done like that then, and it can't be done now. But the young president and his even younger treasury secretary have nonetheless been taught a hard lesson in political economy.
To govern is to choose, as Aneurin Bevan - the Welsh architect of Britain's post-1945 national healthcare system - said. It is now clear that inviting the poachers to act as gamekeepers was a mistake. Many Americans long accepted the conservative contention that government was the problem, not the solution. That phase of history seems to have ended, and a progressive president finds himself coping with a new wave of populism of a kind that seemed to have disappeared from America politics for generations. He means to govern, and he will have to choose.
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. His books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)
Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:
"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)
"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)
"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)
"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)
"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)
"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)
"Change?" (2 December 2008)
"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)
"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)
"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)
It is not surprising that Barack Obama's election has dramatically transformed the way French citizens think of the United States. That story has been told many times before, if not about France than about other countries and their fascinations with the American president. Yet, in an unexpected mirror effect, it is France's vision of itself that is being altered by Obama's victory.
During the past eight years, the French thought of their homeland as far superior to what they saw as a death penalty-loving bastion of reactionary forces; now, they celebrate the United States for its new-found maturity, an elevated politics that many fear is unattainable in France. The comfort of knowing that a Frenchman with George W Bush's politics would find himself dismissed as a dangerous extremist has given way to an often-voiced anxiety: Could a "French Obama" win a presidential election?
This is not just a rhetorical question; it has real significance in the French context. Obama's French enthusiasts inevitably distort his real profile and platform in their effort to frame his victory for their own purposes. The parts of Obama's story that his admirers invoke and the themes they emphasize provide a window into the glaring shortfalls of French society. Obama is a cipher for the Left's inability to sell its ideas; the rigid structure of political parties and stultifying hold of political elites; and the dreadful lack of minority figures in leadership positions.
A socialist icon
One group of Obama admirers can be found in the Socialist Party (PS). The country's leading left-wing party has not won a presidential election since 1988 and a legislative election since 1997. Asphyxiated in recent years by the hyperactivity of right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy and unable to counter the spread of conservative ideas, the PS has been in survival mode for much of the past decade.
Socialist leaders are now hoping to take advantage of Obama's victory to bolster their own cause and get back into France's political game. To regain power, the PS must learn how to make its platform look more appealing to lower and middle class voters. And what better way to do that than to insist the party's proposals are similar to those of the popular and emblematically progressive American president? Daniel Nichanian is a freelance writer and journalist. He blogs at Campaign Diaries.
"Restoration of the power of the public sector, intervention in the markets, efforts to restrict free trade for the benefit of employment," marveled party spokesperson Benoît Hamon in an interview with the French newspaper La Croix back in March 2008. "Each of these actions is considered archaic in the European Union but Obama demonstrates that they are in fact suited to our times."
Of course, such an assertion requires the cherry-picking of a few of Obama's proposals that have a progressive cast, portraying them as far more left-of-centre than they actually are. This grey distortion was glaringly evident over the past few weeks, as the PS repeatedly invoked Obama's relatively centrist recovery plan to argue that the current economic crisis demanded a leftist response.
In touting the PS's counter-proposal to Sarkozy's stimulus, Hamon took pride in the fact that the Socialists' proposal is "in tune with that which Barack Obama is doing for his country;" he also defended his call for the state to take a seat on banks' board of directors by portraying Obama as a strong proponent of nationalization. Meanwhile, party head Martine Aubry called on Sarkozy to follow in Obama's footsteps. "When the issue of capping CEO salaries comes up, Obama is on the move," she said in a recent interview with Le Parisien. "I'm waiting for Sarkozy to do the same."
Obama's actual policy statements might not be as leftist as Aubry and Hamon's characterizations, and his commitment to saving the capitalist system is probably closer to Sarkozy's vow to "re-found" it. But that doesn't stop PS officials from suggesting that the American rejection of conservative ideas heralds a left-ward shift in French politics.
The grassroots hero
While Aubry and Hamon strive to depict Obama as a socialist in the hope of reviving France's left-wing discourse, others are more interested in drawing upon the narrative of Obama as an anti-establishment, grassroots candidate to denounce the rigidity of the French system.
France's political life is dominated by a monolithic ruling class - overwhelmingly white, sharing similar resumes, of the same age; most have gone through the same top school, the National School of Administration (ENA). Politicians hold on to power for decades, blocking the renewal of elites and preventing new generations from entering positions of responsibility.
How could reformers concerned with such stagnation not look towards Obama? Whatever the American president's actual commitment to broadening the democratic process, he inspired millions of first-time voters, defeated better-established candidates and bypassed traditional structures to engage directly with the body public - all feats many worry would not be feasible in France.
The dispute over which strand of reform to prioritize - policy or process - rocked the PS during its heated leadership fight last fall. One faction, led by Hamon, contended that the party should radicalize its economic platform; another camp, led by the party's 2007 presidential nominee Ségolène Royal, advocated for procedural changes like the expansion of the party's membership base and making primaries open to the public at large rather than only to dues-paying activists.
Royal's narrow loss in the PS's leadership vote hardened her determination to portray herself as an opponent of the political establishment. Much of this is opportunistic, of course - Royal is a longtime politician who graduated from ENA and served in the governmental cabinet as early as 1992 - and she was mocked mercilessly recently for suggesting that Obama had copied her campaign. But there is indisputably shared parentage between Royal's objectives and some of Obama's rhetoric; she built her presidential campaign around participative and inclusive forums meant to draw voters in and allow them to shape her platform.
Her proposals found their echo in a 137-page report released earlier this year by Terra Nova, a left-leaning think thank that sent a study group to the United States to observe the presidential election. In obvious awe of Obama, the group issued a series of recommendations aimed at revitalizing French democracy by loosening the organization of parties and improving political communication. For instance, the report called for the constitution of mass parties to replace France's relatively small political organizations, whose power is held by a core group of activists.
"This would allow political leaders to emancipate themselves from the parties' structures," touted Pauline Peretz, a professor at the Université de Nantes and a member of the study group. "A more direct relationship can be built with party members and with the electorate," she added, alluding to a model of "participative democracy."
Mass parties have pitfalls of their own, however. Critics worry that dramatically expanding the scope of parties would dilute their ideological substance and intellectual liveliness, risking their transformation into mere instruments of the ambitions of politicians. But toying with party structure is only one of many possible ways with which to reform the system. What no one disputes - and what Obama's victory makes all the clearer - is that citizens must be more directly involved in the political process.
France's monochrome politics
This is the compromise institutionalized political parties have to make to ensure that they are representative of the country's diversity - whether in terms of gender, class or race. Obama's election offers a unique opportunity to highlight French politics's striking monochromatism.
Asked whether France could conceivably elect a minority president, Patrice Schoendorff, who runs a pro-Obama organization in Lyon and who co-founded the website Diversité News, did not hesitate. "It's impossible! We are at least 30 years behind," he said. "We might not even have a minority with enough standing to jump in the field. We can't even imagine having a minority as big city mayor."
This judgment might sound harsh, but one statistic is enough to substantiate Schoendorff's analysis: In the most recent elections, only two minority politicians were elected in the 555 parliamentary districts that make up mainland France. (There are 22 seats reserved for France's overseas territories.)
The challenges minorities face extend well beyond the electoral sphere. Cavernous socio-economic inequality is combined with France's failure to adequately integrate millions of second and third-generation immigrants; the situation revealed its explosive potential during the 2005 riots in the banlieues, the predominantly lower-class suburbs that house a significant minority population.
With Obama's victory, French activists believe they have been provided an opening to broach sensible subjects and empower minority groups in France. Alfa'Dev, a neighborhood association based in Argenteuil, a Paris suburb, was anxious to seize the opportunity and installed a giant screen in city hall on the day of Obama's Inauguration.
The viewing party made for a powerful event. Back in 2005, Argenteuil was the stage of a tense confrontation between Sarkozy and the banlieusards. Sarkozy, who was then Interior Minister, has been reluctant to visits the banlieues since then, aggravating their divorce from mainstream French society and politics. Now, Argenteuil's youth have turned towards a foreign president for the inspiration they cannot find in the French one.
Michel Sabaly, who runs Alfa'Dev, underlined Obama's appeal in the impoverished suburb. "We want to adapt America's 'yes we can' to say that if Obama could work to become who he is, we should be able to do the same in France," he said. "People from the banlieues who have similar stories can believe that work, perseverance, and seriousness are assets that can lead someone who started out with very little to someplace successful."
What makes it particularly difficult to translate social empowerment into political change in France is that the condition of minorities is shaped by the country's colonial past and by recent migratory waves. Unlike African-Americans in the United States, French minorities are still often perceived as foreigners. According to Esther Benbassa, a professor at Sorbonne's Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, this limits the possibility of a mass movement like America's campaign for civil rights or of an organization working on behalf of an entire community. "Here, we are stuck in an individualist understanding of power," she said. "Those who come from immigrant families and want to reach influence are fighting for themselves."
With advocacy groups weaker than they often are in the United States, it is no surprise that political parties have failed to step up. But with the election of Obama, the political class is being forced to recognize how far behind France finds itself. Obama's victory is generating enough pressure to force onto the table thorny issues like affirmation action or the need to overturn a ban on collecting ethnic and racial statistics.
Neither of these two proposals enjoys the unanimous support of minority rights groups, but they should at least be debated. France's commitment to jacobin values has long prevented ethnicity from being acknowledged as a relevant category of public life and as a potential source of inequality, and the ban on ethnic statistics denies us even a basic knowledge of the socio-economic condition of minority groups.
When imported into the French context, Obama might only be a symbol - what Benbassa deplores as a "gadget" politicians use to show their commitment to reform - but he is undoubtedly a useful one. He has got the reticent, recalcitrant French finally talking about their own problems.
On paper, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal would appear to be the perfect candidate to help shepherd the Republican Party out of its post-election mire. A Rhodes scholar of Indian descent, who became the youngest governor in the country upon assuming office in 2007 at the age of 36, Jindal possesses the intellect, youth, and philosophical outlook to both satisfy the whims of the party's base and court the interest of young and non-white voters--demographic groups which the GOP has been haemorrhaging to the Democrats in recent election cycles.
As such, it should come as no real surprise that the Republican leadership saw it fit to hand Jindal the fillip of presenting the party's official televised rebuttal to President Barack Obama's first speech to Congress: a perfect opportunity to introduce himself to a national audience, articulate a distinct vision for America's present and future, and lay the foundations for an already-mooted presidential run in less than four years' time.
However, if Tuesday's address truly was the first litmus test of a potential Jindal candidacy, then perhaps he would be better off sticking to his pledge (made on last week's edition of 'Meet the Press') to focus solely on getting re-elected as governor in 2011.
Jindal's performance has drawn widespread criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, and rightly so. With the country in the midst of a historically unprecedented economic implosion, and its citizens eagerly looking towards their democracy's political elders for both leadership and solace, the Louisiana governor comprehensively failed to substantively address the Presidential speech that preceded him, or perhaps more importantly discuss the topic of the economic crisis itself in a meaningful or engaging way.
Instead, the GOP's spokesman chose to deliver an oft-heard and well-trodden diatribe on why Republicans favoured a diminutive role for the state in government, punctuated with a catchphrase--"Americans can do anything"--which undoubtedly appeared rousing on paper but was sapped of any inspirational potency by Jindal's awkward, uneven and surprisingly unpolished delivery.
At a time when the vast majority of Americans now face uncertainty and trepidation on a daily basis due to the current economic crisis, those looking towards the Republican Party for leadership or solace on Tuesday night must have been sorely disappointed. The entire country has just experienced a two-year presidential race that was publicized and scrutinized to its last breath by the media--does the GOP really believe that there's anyone in the country in doubt as to what each party stands for? Do they think that voter confusion was the root of John McCain's defeat in the fall? Bipartisan governance is strongly desired by the electorate now more than ever--why shun the possibility of co-operation and return instead to the tired talking points of the last eight years at the very first opportunity?
While Jindal's performance was poor, the content of his message also deserves much criticism. Yes, there is need for stringent oversight on such a large and contrived spending package as the one in question to avoid a return to the pork-barrel politics that has become synonymous with Washington, unquestionably. However, if the Republican Party want to follow Barack Obama's lead and turn this theme into a communications strategy that really resonates with the American people, they first need to dilute down their obvious distaste for large, centralized government. There is an appetite across the developed world for an expanded fiscal role for government that only the most serious of crises can create: however inconvenient it may be, Republicans ignore this sentiment at their peril.Governor Jindal's speech on Tuesday night did nothing to dispel the perception among liberals and conservatives alike that the Republican Party has become a party lacking in ideas. If anything, it should have sent alarm bells ringing within the party, and forced many who watched it to reconsider whether the comparisons frequently made between Jindal and President Obama are rooted more in superficiality than substance.
Last week, Carol Thatcher unwittingly illustrated how an archaic word from a different generation retains much of its racially-charged potency to this day - and rightly drew condemnation for it. This week, it was the turn of imagery to dredge up the unseemly spectre of the past.
A storm of publicity has gathered around the offices of the New York Post, after a cartoon published in Wednesday's edition of the newspaper - depicting the author of the recently-approved economic stimulus as a dead, crazed chimpanzee - was accused of being a not so subtle exercise in jingoism by both commentators in the media and civil rights activists.
Speaking to the media, Reverend Al Sharpton declared that "the cartoon in today's New York Post is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys."
"One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill,'" he added.
A press release was quickly issued by the newspaper, defending its cartoon as "a clear parody of a current news event" - the shooting dead by police of a chimpanzee in Connecticut on Monday after the creature mauled its owner's friend - and denouncing Rev. Sharpton for being "nothing more than a publicity opportunist."
However, with the furore over the cartoon refusing to abate, and a group of protestors converging on the newspaper's headquarters, the Post softened its stance in a Friday editorial, saying that "to those who were offended by the image, we apologise."
Whether simply a poorly executed sketch that was misconstrued - as the Guardian's USA blog rightly points out, the author of the stimulus package referenced in the cartoon would be the Democratic congressional leadership, not President Obama himself - or something more sinister, the controversy surrounding Sean Delonas's work highlights an interesting dilemma: the challenge now facing the professional satirists whose job it is to subvert the image of the first African-American president of the United States.
Distorting facial features as a means of highlighting the excesses and frailties of our public figures has been a staple of political satirists' trade in the western press since Thomas Nast's pioneering work during the Tammany Hall era, providing some iconic and enduring images: from the defiance of Winston Churchill's bulldoggish scowl to, more recently, Tony Blair's unnervingly large and perfectly-formed dentures and the increasingly simian features of George W Bush.
However, as highlighted recently in an article on the Huffington Post, cartoonists in the American press now find themselves in unchartered waters, as they try to tread an increasingly thin line between caricature and stereotype when penning their work: draw President Obama's lips too large, or his ears too big, and an artist may inadvertently face the same charges of racism and xenophobia levelled at the New York Post this week.
As CNN columnist Roland S. Martin succinctly put it: "What could be seen as silly humour if President George W Bush were in the White House has to be seen through the lens of America's racist past."
Tell Rall, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, summed up the difficulty this paradigmatic moment in American history has invariably posed for his organisations' members, noting that, "without a doubt, people are stepping more gingerly. People are tiptoeing their way through this."
The alarm bells should have sounded for many during the general election. Seeking to poke fun at the right-wing media's continued chatter over Obama's "true" religious beliefs and purported affiliation with terrorist organisations, The New Yorker magazine placed on its front cover a depiction of Obama and his wife standing in the Oval Office: replete with turban, salwar kameez, camouflage pants and an AK-47 rifle. The cartoon, while playing on the issue of religion rather than race, was quickly rounded upon by critics who believed it reinforced popular misconceptions about the Democratic candidate - including his own campaign, which denounced it as "tasteless and offensive."
With more than 45 months left in President Obama's tenure, it seems inevitable this issue will arise again; particularly given that interest groups such as the NAACP are set to become even more vigilant in their monitoring of the media's output after this week's incident.
Consequently, political cartoonists now face the unenviable challenge of marrying outrageous and provocative iconography with political correctness: a damning restriction of free speech, which may, ironically, provoke a self-fulfilling creative backlash that results in the production of more vitriolic and jingoistic works.
As decorated American cartoonist Jules Feiffer noted, "outside of basic intelligence, there is nothing more important to a good political cartoonist than ill will." American political cartoonists are starting to get tetchy.
Ahn "Joseph" Cao, a Republican who represents the state of Louisiana, is the first elected politician of Vietnamese origin in the United States's House of Representatives. He had declared on 12 February 2009 that he would cast the only Republican vote for Barack Obama's economic-stimulus package in the House; while Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, and the first US governor of Indian origin, was chosen by the party to make the only nationally-televised rebuttal of Obama's proposal, after the new president outlines his plan to the first joint session of Congress of his tenure.
Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here
Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly
For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here
Obama and Jindal's speeches are scheduled for Mardi Gras Day, 24 February 2009. This virtually ensures that no one in Jindal's constituency will see either.
No matter. This overt "product placement" is determined by the Republican Party's need to redeem itself in the eyes of the American people. The "grand old party" has already put on a new public face by hiring Michael Steele to be the chair of the Republican National Committee (a competent and experienced gentleman, and the first African-American to hold that post). Now they place governor Jindal - also quite intelligent, sincere and untainted by scandal - in direct opposition to President Obama.
Both Cao and Jindal have in recent months been described as the "future of the Republican Party" (see "Three regular guys", 8 January 2009). But Cao believes the future of Republicans may lie in not acting like Republicans. He knows his New Orleans district is among the poorest in America, totally lacks infrastructure since hurricane Katrina, and is in dire need of just the sort of restorative influx that will come with Obama's plan.
He has been meeting face to face with many of his constituents on a regular basis, and had said re the stimulus package: "I am voting along with what my conscience dictates and the needs of the 2d Congressional District dictates". Cao's constituency is, unlike him, overwhelmingly African-American and Democratic. Yet he seemed determined to represent them - until the evening of 12 February 2009, when at the last minute he succumbed to partisan politics and reversed himself. Thus the Republicans were able to make their statement: none would bend to support the Democratic president.
Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, has spent a lot of time criticising the proposed economic measures at gatherings all over the south, while simultaneously using those speeches as campaign-contribution magnets for his next step into the national spotlight. This will be advanced greatly with his carnival-day speech.
A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:
"This is personal" (23 April 2007)"
Lessons in the classics"
(6 August 2007)"
Native to America" (26 September 2007)"
The upper crust"
(8 November 2007)"
Windfall" (17 December 2007)"
Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)"
Hardware madness: Katrina's three years"
(24 August 2008)"
Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)"
(8 October 2008)"
Nine-inch nails in the White House"
(31 October 2008)"
Living the American movie"
(5 November 2008)"
Three regular guys" (8 January 2009)
The Louisiana swamp
Politics in the United States can be less than forgiving. The stories of careers made and broken, leaders exalted and spurned, predate even the foundation of the republic. But the stories of survival and return are also legion; there are second and even third acts in American lives. This is exactly what the Republicans are banking on: redemption in the eyes of the voting public.
So who gets redemption?
The first month of the new era has seen quite a few ups and downs, ins and outs in Barack Obama's proposed cabinet (see Godfrey Hodgson, "Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis", 6 February 2009). But to get a better idea of what is and is not forgiven in politics, the more overtly tawdry portions of recent history offer a guide.
The case of the semi-penitent Bill Clinton is classic. For even after dissembling over the embarrassing behaviour that consumed his last year in office (and royally infuriated a future secretary of state), he has remained a huge favourite of many American people. His charisma may have dimmed during his efforts in 2008 to help get his wife a better-paying federal job, but he retains the support even of individuals who are otherwise straight-laced. This is the man referred to positively by my own mother, who after only two years of George W Bush, called me to admit that she had also recently sinned: "I have been praying that God would somehow bring back the adulterer" (see "Frozen assets: letter from New Orleans", 5 June 2006).
The result: redeemed.
The case of Newt Gingrich, ex-speaker of the House and Bill Clinton's one-time great rival, is a prime example of unrepentant redemption. In over-the-top rhetoric reminiscent of Richard Nixon's logorrhea-inflicted vice-president Spiro Agnew, Gingrich assailed the president and led the battle for impeachment. After the political fortunes were reversed, he himself was revealed to have been conducting his own double life. He said "never mind", shut his mouth, hid in north Georgia for the better part of a decade - and in 2009 is back, supposedly (at least in his own mind) cleansed of sin. Gingrich, touting himself as "the leader of the Republican revolution that swept Congress in 1994", has even initiated his own website-newsletter, "winning the future". His honesty-and-logic-challenged motto "real change requires real change", oddly enough, runs in a banner on the site advertising his book Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less.
The result: limited redemption.
The case of Bob Livingston, another Republican who represents the state of Louisiana in the House of Representatives - a fellow Clinton-flayer, who was chosen to succeed Gingrich as House speaker (a post he did not take up) - also became known for his the excesses of his private life. He retired from the spotlight, except when daily re-entering every office on Capitol Hill as the highly-compensated lobbyist for the Livingston Group. An early client was Turkey, whose interests over "international and historical issues" (such as denying the genocide of Armenians in 1915 and after) he defended. Bob Livingston is growing much wealthier now than during his days in public service.
The result: redemption declined.
The trail of salvation now gets more twisted. The elected Louisiana replacement for Bob Livingston in 1999 was family-values super-straight-moral-arrow David Vitter, who went on in 1992 to run for the governorship of Louisiana. He survived reports of extra-marital relations then and rumours of the same when running for the Senate in 2004, before succumbing in 2007 when substantive proof was finally offered that Vitter was partaking in numerous liaisons. In Vitter's case the acts were illegal as well as morally questionable, as he was listed as a frequent patron of call-girls, prostitutes and escort-services on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
The head of the escort-service used by Vitter in Washington DC subpoenaed him in late 2007, though his appearance was later cancelled. Sarah Jane Palfrey committed suicide in 2008, which brought Vitter's transgressions back into the public eye. The Senator refused to resign, but - following the Gingrich model - retreated from the media glare before re-emerging in early 2009 with a vengeance: aggressively pro-military, guns, and religious involvement in government, anti-women's choice, gay rights, and immigration-amnesty. He grandstanded at Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearings and was the sole vote against her, delaying the final verdict just to draw attention to himself.
Stormy Daniels, a Louisiana-born star of pornographic films, announced on 13 February 2009 that she is seriously considering a run against Vitter. Despite all this, Vitter is supposedly still polling well with his constituents.
The result: redemption pending.
The Washington pit
A release from these relentless tales of sexual transgressions can be found in one quick incidence of forgiveness from violence. Dick Cheney, vice-president under George W Bush, clearly illustrated the effects of executive power on redemption. The hardline, tooth-grinding veteran shot a hunting partner in the face and body with a large-gauge shotgun, wounding the man severely (see Sidney Blumenthal, "The rules of the game", 17 February 2006). There were odd, never-explained circumstances involved, but before any serious investigation could be made Cheney was cleansed of his transgression... when the gent he shot took the blame.
The result: redeemed. And don't you forget it.
The relief from blame was not the case for the police officer who received Larry Craig's wanton overtures. The Republican representative from Idaho was arrested in a Minneapolis-St Paul airport men's room for "homosexual lewd conduct", taken to police headquarters and immediately pleaded guilty to a lesser plea of "disorderly conduct". He subsequently recanted, but did not retract his guilty plea, and was never forgiven by his constituency. Even his fellow Republicans asked him to step aside, but he stubbornly held on until his very last federal pay-cheque. His term officially ended in January 2009, eighteen months after his "sin".
The result: unredeemable.
The Lousiana and Washington litany ends on a Democratic (if less prurient) note, with the unrepentant Louisiana ex-representative William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson. He was the receiver of $90,000 in frozen kickbacks, a "public servant" whose extended family contains people who have plundered New Orleans for decades and are, almost to a person, now under indictment. It seems probable from federal evidence that Bill, of all the politicians above, is the sole offender going to jail. He will go soon, as he no longer has the shelter of political office.
The day arrives
I admit that I both laugh over and am simultaneously horrified by these events. But the "sins" of George W Bush and his party, a group that every moment abused what little public mandate it had over these last eight years, are much more serious than victimless philandering. I would, as my mother said, pray for the return of an "adulterer" of any political affiliation, rather than endure the wide varieties of personal power-mongering which America and her one-time partners in the world have had to face in the period of Bushite rule.
The Republicans know this. They are attempting to reinvent themselves and project new faces into the limelight. But will it be the likes of Anh "Joseph" Cao or of Bobby Jindal who will be their salvation? It is almost frightening that the first choices are being made now, as I write these words.
The result: redemption awaits. Possibly on Mardi Gras Day.
Ever since Barack Obama won the presidency, American women - battered by the George W Bush administration's assaults on their rights - have sensed the possibility of change and mobilised to make sure that the new president hear their voices and recognise their needs. Their input into debates on his plan to revivify and transform the United States economy is a key focus of this effort.
While the Munich Security Conference brought together senior leaders from most major countries and many minor ones last weekend, none was more significant than US Vice President Joe Biden. This is because Biden provided the first glimpse of US foreign policy under President Barack Obama. Most conference attendees were looking forward to a dramatic shift in US foreign policy under the Obama administration. What was interesting about Biden's speech was how little change there has been in the US position and how much the attendees and the media were cheered by it.
After Biden's speech, there was much talk about a change in the tone of US policy. But it is not clear to us whether this was because the tone has changed, or because the attendees' hearing has. They seemed delighted to be addressed by Biden rather than by former Vice President Dick Cheney - delighted to the extent that this itself represented a change in policy. Thus, in everything Biden said, the conference attendees saw rays of a new policy.
Policy continuity: Iran and Russia
Consider Iran. The Obama administration's position, as staked out by Biden, is that the United States is prepared to speak directly to Iran provided that the Iranians do two things. First, Tehran must end its nuclear weapons program. Second, Tehran must stop supporting terrorists, by which Biden meant Hamas and Hezbollah. Once the Iranians do that, the Americans will talk to them. The Bush administration was equally prepared to talk to Iran given those preconditions. The Iranians make the point that such concessions come after talks, not before, and that the United States must change its attitude toward Iran before there can be talks, something Iranian majlis Speaker Ali Larijani emphasized after the meeting. Apart from the emphasis on a willingness to talk, the terms Biden laid out for such negotiations are identical to the terms under the Bush administration.
Now consider Russia. Officially, the Russians were delighted to hear that the United States was prepared to hit the "reset button" on US-Russian relations. But Moscow cannot have been pleased when it turned out that hitting the reset button did not involve ruling out NATO expansion, ending American missile defense system efforts in central Europe or publicly acknowledging the existence of a Russian sphere of influence. Biden said, "It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances." In translation, this means the United States has the right to enter any relationship it wants with independent states, and that independent states have the right to enter any relationship they want. In other words, the Bush administration's commitment to the principle of NATO expansion has not changed.
Nor could the Russians have been pleased with the announcement just prior to the conference that the United States would continue developing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The BMD program has been an issue of tremendous importance for Russians, and it is something Obama indicated he would end, or change in some way that might please the Russians. But not only was there no commitment to ending the program, there also was no backing away from long-standing US interest in it, or even any indication of the terms under which it might end.
Given that the United States has asked Russia for a supply route through the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan, and that the Russians have agreed to this in principle, it would seem that that there might be an opening for a deal with the Russians. But just before the Munich conference opened, Kyrgyzstan announced that Manas Air Base, the last air base open to the United States in central Asia, would no longer be available to American aircraft. This was a tidy little victory for the Russians, who had used political and financial levers to pressure Kyrgyzstan to eject the Americans. The Russians, of course, deny that any such pressure was ever brought to bear, and that the closure of the base one day before Munich could have been anything more than coincidence.
But the message to the United States was clear: while Russia agrees in principle to the US supply line, the Americans will have to pay a price for it. In case Washington was under the impression it could get other countries in the former Soviet Union to provide passage, the Russians let the Americans know how much leverage Moscow has in these situations. The US assertion of a right to bilateral relations won't happen in Russia's near abroad without Russian help, and that help won't come without strategic concessions from the United States. In short, the American position on Russia hasn't changed, and neither has the Russian position.
The most interesting - and for us, the most anticipated - part of Biden's speech had to do with the Europeans, of whom the French and Germans were the most enthusiastic about Bush's departure and Obama's arrival. Biden's speech addressed the core question of the US-European relationship.
If the Europeans were not prepared to increase their participation in American foreign policy initiatives during the Bush administration, it was assumed that they would be during the Obama administration. The first issue on the table under the new U.S. administration is the plan to increase forces in Afghanistan. Biden called for more NATO involvement in that conflict, which would mean an increase in European forces deployed to Afghanistan. Some countries, along with the head of NATO, support this. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that Germany is not prepared to send more troops.
Over the past year or so, Germany has become somewhat estranged from the United States. Dependent on Russian energy, Germany has been unwilling to confront Russia on issues of concern to Washington. Merkel has made it particularly clear that while she does not oppose NATO expansion in principle, she certainly opposes expansion to states that Russian considers deeply within its sphere of influence (primarily Georgia and Ukraine). The Germans have made it abundantly clear that they do not want to see European-Russian relations deteriorate under US prodding. Moreover, Germany has no appetite for continuing its presence in Afghanistan, let alone increasing it.
NATO faces a substantial split, conditioned partly by Germany's dependence on Russian energy, but also by deep German unease about any possible resumption of a Cold War with Russia, however mild. The foundation of NATO during the Cold War was the US-German-British relationship. With the Germans unwilling to align with the United States and other NATO members over Russia or Afghanistan, it is unclear whether NATO can continue to function. (Certainly, Merkel cannot be pleased that the United States has not laid the BMD issue in Poland and the Czech Republic to rest.)
The more things change...
Most interesting here is the continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations in regards to foreign policy. It is certainly reasonable to argue that after only three weeks in office, no major initiatives should be expected of the new president. But major initiatives were implied - such as ending the BMD deployment to Poland and the Czech Republic - and declaring the intention to withdraw BMD would not have required much preparation. But Biden offered no new initiatives beyond expressing a willingness to talk, without indicating any policy shifts regarding the things that have blocked talks. Willingness to talk with the Iranians, the Russians, the Europeans and others shifts the atmospherics - allowing the listener to think things have changed - but does not address the question of what is to be discussed and what is to be offered and accepted.
Ultimately, the issues dividing the world are not, in our view, subject to personalities, nor does goodwill (or bad will, for that matter) address the fundamental questions. Iran has strategic and ideological reasons for behaving the way it does. So does Russia. So does Germany, and so on. The tensions that exist between those countries and the United States might be mildly exacerbated by personalities, but nations are driven by interest, not personality.
Biden's position did not materially shift the Obama administration away from Bush's foreign policy, because Bush was the prisoner of that policy, not its creator. The Iranians will not make concessions on nuclear weapons prior to holding talks, and they do not regard their support for Hamas or Hezbollah as aiding terrorism. Being willing to talk to the Iranians provided they abandon these things is the same as being unwilling to talk to them.
There has been no misunderstanding between the United States and Russia that more open dialogue will cure. The Russians see no reason for NATO expansion unless NATO is planning to encircle Russia. It is possible for the west to have relations with Ukraine and Georgia without expanding NATO; Moscow sees the insistence on expansion as implying sinister motives. For its part, the United States refuses to concede that Russia has any interest in the decisions of the former Soviet Union states, something Biden reiterated. Therefore, either the Russians must accept NATO expansion, or the Americans must accept that Russia has an overriding interest in limiting American relations in the former Soviet Union. This is a fundamental issue that any US administration would have to deal with - particularly an administration seeking Russian cooperation in Afghanistan.
As for Germany, NATO was an instrument of rehabilitation and stability after World War II. But Germany now has a complex relationship with Russia, as well as internal issues. It does not want NATO drawing it into adventures that are not in Germany's primary interest, much less into a confrontation with Russia. No amount of charm, openness or dialogue is going to change this fundamental reality.
Dialogue does offer certain possibilities. The United States could choose to talk to Iran without preconditions. It could abandon NATO expansion and quietly reduce its influence in the former Soviet Union, or perhaps convince the Russians that they could benefit from this influence. The United States could abandon the BMD system (though this has been complicated by Iran's recent successful satellite launch), or perhaps get the Russians to participate in the program. The United States could certainly get the Germans to send a small force to Afghanistan above and beyond the present German contingent. All of this is possible.
What can't be achieved is a fundamental transformation of the geopolitical realities of the world. No matter how Obama campaigned, it is clear he knows that. Apart from his preoccupation with economic matters, Obama understands that foreign policy is governed by impersonal forces and is not amenable to rhetoric, although rhetoric might make things somewhat easier. No nation gives up its fundamental interests because someone is willing to talk.
Willingness to talk is important, but what is said is much more important. Obama's first foray into foreign policy via Biden indicates that, generally speaking, he understands the constraints and pressures that drive American foreign policy, and he understands the limits of presidential power. Atmospherics aside, Biden's positions - as opposed to his rhetoric - were strikingly similar to Cheney's foreign policy positions.
We argued long ago that presidents don't make history, but that history makes presidents. We see Biden's speech as a classic example of this principle.
George Friedman is an American political scientist and author. He is the founder and CEO of the private intelligence corporation Stratfor.
This report has been republished from www.stratfor.com
The high-end blogosphere has been aflutter over "Conservatism is Dead," the latest of Sam Tanenhaus' many long elegies in The New Republic for conservatism as a movement and an ideology. But no one has recalled, much less revisited, his dirge in a lecture at the heavily neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute in November 2007. Perhaps inadvertently, he put his finger then on American conservatism's original sin.
Tanenhaus, who edits The New York Times Book Review and the "Week in Review" section of that paper, began by noting that while American conservatives had once chafed under the New Deal's soulless managerialism, they'd allowed ex-leftist conservatives such as James Burnham and Irving Kristol to lead them on a long march through institutions that they despised, in an effort to build a managerial class of their own.
In Tanenhaus' telling, Kristol showed conservative business and political leaders that New Deal managerialism had bred a liberal "new class" of academic, think-tank, and media experts who trafficked in policy intellection more than in policymaking, but with significant consequences for the latter. He counseled conservatives to outdo liberals at this game in order to rescue liberal education and liberal democracy for the kind of capitalism and politics conservatives could profit from and enjoy. They might even restore virtue to Progressive reforms and secure the enlightened "national greatness" conservatism of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose American admirers would soon include Kristol's son Bill and Tanenhaus himself.
Jim Sleeper is a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale.
He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). Kristol's auditors took his advice seriously enough to compound American conservatism's original sin - its incapacity to reconcile its yearning for ordered, sacred liberty with its obeisance to every riptide of the global capitalism that's destroying the nation, the republic, the values, and the customs that conservatives claim to cherish.
Through lavishly-funded initiatives such as New York City's Manhattan Institute, campus organizations, and private ventures such as Rupert Murdoch's journalism, conservatives generated a parody of the liberal "new class" - an on-message machine of talkers, squawkers, apparatchiks, and greedheads that Slate's Jacob Weisberg dubbed "the Con-intern."
The Con-intern's social ideas resembled Margaret Thatcher's more than Disraeli's. They were driven by a capitalist materialism that was as soulless as the Marxist dialectical materialism of their nightmares. That gave a false ring to conservative rhapsodies about civic-republican virtue. It glossed the displacement of the liberal counterculture with a degrading over-the-counter culture. It ignored conservatism's displacement of the New Deal's supposed "make-work" programs with the non-response to Katrina. It countered the "Vietnam syndrome" with the worst foreign-policy blunder in American history. Beneath the Con-intern's civic chimes and patriotic bombast, the civic republican spirit writhed in silent agony, forsaken by conservatism itself.
Tanenhaus knows all this, and at AEI he hinted that Irving Kristol knows it, too, but has become cynical and followed the money: "One could look over the trajectory of Mr. Kristol's brilliant career and see that he's in a different place in the 1990s than he was in the 1970s," Tanenhaus said, recalling that Kristol used to cite Matthew Arnold's cultural visions against Milton Friedman's vindications of greed.
Tanenhaus' wistful pleas for a politics of decency made me wonder then what conservatism could do besides push profits and spew guns, racism, sexism, and war to distract us all from the heartbreaking dissolution of the civic-republican ethos of getting along in the pursuit of a common good, of handling our losses without developing longstanding grudges.
Without question, the Con-intern has destroyed a lot of trust. While Tanenhaus stopped short of saying so in 2007, many conservatives of reputed discernment and high purpose had been sucked into the maelstrom, including the Kristols, the Podhoretzes (Norman and Norman's son John), the humiliatingly honor-obsessed Kagans (Thucydides scholar Donald and his sons Robert, the grasping power historian, and Frederick [the Great], an AEI military strategist), and the sophistical New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Tanenhaus did plead for a conservatism of virtue and moral poise. He credited "my hero Bill Buckley" for pushing anti-Semitic and other extremists out of the movement. He cautioned against trying to destroy liberalism with "a language of accusations, ... of treason at home and of leftists who have the same values as Osama Bin Laden." He called for a culturally textured, sophisticated conservative critique and assailed "magazines I used to write for, such as Commentary, which accused the New York Times magazine, my newspaper, of violating the Espionage Act because it published an article exposing a surveillance program. That's revenge," he said.
But there was no such moral poise or textured critique in the preponderance of liberal-bashing book reviews that Tanenhaus was running in the Times. And the person in his AEI audience with whom he seemed most engaged - referring to him respectfully at least four times - was David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who has sought to roll back the welfare state and a conservatism like Disraeli's that would have some care for the poor, but apparently is now reconsidering.
Tanenhaus invoked Lionel Trilling's distinction between an honorable sincerity that's anchored in faithfulness to a culture and a phony, individualist "authenticity" that reflects the narcissism in modern liberalism. He didn't mention Trilling's observation that, against even the vapid liberalism of his time, American conservatism had become a set of "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." In response to a question from AEI vice president Henry Olsen, Tanenhaus mentioned Whittaker Chambers' observation to Buckley that, as Tanenhaus paraphrased it, "You can't build a clear conservatism out of capitalism because capitalism disrupts culture."
Well, what about that? Surely markets should be honored only in their place, and there are occasions when the polity must be sovereign over the economy. New Deal "liberal" managers knew that that requires a republican vigilance that profit-maximizing corporations, as much as big government, inevitably try to subvert. Asked by historian Michael Kazin to explain the prospects for a small-government conservatism that's still tied to big government, including a military operation that's a virtual welfare state for its participants, Tanenhaus responded, "I'd be interested to hear what David Frum has to say on that," confessing himself a "total ignoramus about globalization issues."
The poignancy of Tanenhaus' predicament reminds us that conservatism's original sin lies not in its bombastic and noxious neo-conservative interlopers, accelerants of republican decay though they may be, but in the tragic nature of American conservatism itself.
When conservatives vow to rescue liberal education and democracy from liberals, they mean sincerely to defend a classical, 18th-century liberalism that balances individuals' rights to life, liberty, and property with individuals' responsibilities as republican citizens to rise sometimes above narrow self-interest, to act on shared moral commitments and sentiments.
Conservatives know that a balanced society, like a whole person, strides forward on both a left foot of social education and security - without which conservatives' cherished individuality couldn't flourish - and a right foot of irreducibly individual freedom and responsibility - without which even the best social engineering will turn persons in to clients, cogs, or worse. Society protects and nourishes the individual flame, but it cannot light it and should not try to extinguish it.
One's readiness or failure to light that flame originates in faith or natural law, which even a covenanted society may honor but cannot itself create or, ultimately, control. Conservatives charge, rightly, that many liberals have lost sight of this sublime truth and have over-emphasized public provision, swelling the left foot and hobbling everyone's stride.
Few elite liberals have a credible answer to this. Too many of them have done too well by the corporate capitalist system to attack its growing inequities with more than symbolic, moralistic gestures. Yet they can't bring themselves to defend it wholeheartedly, either. Sensitive to individual rights and sufferings, they try to strengthen the left foot of social provision without strengthening personal responsibility. For that they rely on outside incubators of the virtues and beliefs which the liberal state and free markets need but by themselves cannot nourish or enforce.
But most of the social mayhem rising around us is driven by the seductions and stresses of corporate consumer marketing and employment and of a capitalism that only opportunistically invokes John Locke's Christian strictures, Adam Smith's theory of the moral sentiments, or a civic-republican nationalism that might reasonably be elevated by serious "liberal education."
Instead of taking these things as seriously as they claim to, conservatives careen back and forth between conflicting loyalties to a national-security state and to a post-nationalist global capitalism that dissolves republican virtue far more than terrorism has done: There is such a thing as "economic violence." It does eviscerate the villages that raise the children. Wall Street does subvert Main Street and morals.
The follies of Marxist ideologues have left a taboo against criticizing capitalism, whose twilight they'd announced a few times too often. But aren't we now in a relationship to capitalism analogous to that of American colonials to the British monarchy early in the 1760s? Colonials then still ardently professed affection for and dependence on the crown, even as they began to sense that their own sovereignty and dignity couldn't be reconciled with the empire's. They wound up risking their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to rearrange that.
Similarly, something basic will have to change relatively soon in how we configure and charter the vast profit-making combines that are degrading social equality and the rhythms and security of our daily lives and incapacitating many Americans as cultural actors and, hence, as free citizens.
Tanenhaus tried fruitlessly in his lecture to square the circle of deceit that has drawn around us by the yawping brigades of conservative opportunists and partisans spawned by Irving Kristol and others. At AEI he presented himself - a bit disingenuously, I think, considering his accomplishments at the Times - as a learned, unassuming fellow who would lead no one anywhere. No wonder that other conservatives think that ex-liberals like Tanenhaus and, for that matter, Irving Kristol, who came to conservatism offering strategic savvy and rhetorical cover for excellent adventures, have only worsened its plight.
Conservatives and liberals alike need to rediscover the American civic-republican tradition and to sacrifice some comforts to revive it. A few years ago I sketched that challenge in an essay about a long-forgotten uncle of the Connecticut anti-war Senate candidate Ned Lamont who had a "conservative" sensibility that many liberals are the poorer for missing. And I waited for Tanenhaus to admit that conservatives can't reconcile their keening for an ordered, sacred liberty with their obeisance to every riptide of a capitalism that's dissolving the republic, values, and customs they claim to cherish.
Now, in The New Republic, he has admitted it. And he has resisted commendably his old temptation to blame liberals. Conservatives who dine out too often on liberals' follies forget how to cook for themselves and the whole society, and Tanenhaus has been a poor chef at the Times, as I showed in The Nation. But I hope that his coming biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. will equal his delicious one of Whittaker Chambers. And I hope that he, Frum, Brooks, and other erstwhile neo-cons who are now very busy trying to re-position themselves will take time to re-ground themselves in presumptions less damaging to the American civil-society and republic.
America may not be losing the war in Afghanistan, but it is also not winning. Neither is the US approach in neighbouring Pakistan making friends or preventing new recruits from crossing the border to kill US and other NATO troops. What then is the best way to promote peace and security in the greater south Asia region, home to nearly half the world's population and several nuclear-armed states? The challenges involved in confronting this threat - which means fighting extremism in both countries, rebuilding governance in Afghanistan, and supporting a weak democratic government in Pakistan - dwarf the past two decades of global state-building activities combined and are too big to be done alone.
For the past few months, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen and US CENTCOM commander General David Petreaus have been leading US government-wide efforts to develop a "comprehensive strategy" to deal with this pressing issue, while Obama has appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to address the multiple challenges of the region.
Karin von Hippel and Frederick Barton are co-directors of the CSIS Post-Conflict Reconstruction ProjectTo succeed, a strategy must have four elements: (1) the innovative use of all the tools of US foreign policy, including development, diplomatic, and military activities; (2) the genuine inclusion of America's key allies; (3) the coherent engagement of regional powers, including India, Iran, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia; and most importantly, (4) ownership of the new approach by the people and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
First, the US government needs to get its own house in order. It needs a unifying and integrated strategy, what the British government calls a "whole-of-government" approach. We have found in dozens of interviews with senior US officials in Washington, Afghanistan, and Pakistan that there has been no clarity as to how much US assistance has been directed at each country, what the overall strategy for each country is, nor what it is for the region as a whole. A counterinsurgency campaign should incorporate development, security, and governance activities, yet here too the US government lacks a truly integrated plan, one that is understood by civilians and soldiers alike (beyond the mantra, "shape, clear, hold, build").
In our own outreach activities, we also discovered that US personnel are not familiar enough with the other offices and officials working on the same issues within government, thus inhibiting coordination and the development of an integrated approach. Diplomatic personnel are rotated frequently, with deployments usually lasting only a year, if that, while four US combatant commands have responsibility for US military operations and activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The "interagency" rarely includes the wider US government community that should be involved in policy and implementation, particularly the Congress. A unified approach requires a common understanding across the entire US team.
Second, the United States needs to reengage with its allies - bilateral and multilateral (notably NATO member states as well as NATO and the United Nations). All need to be involved in the development and implementation of a new regional approach, one that will also include the wider neighborhood (see number three). Gone are the days when US officials can send other countries marching orders and expect them to sacrifice warriors and treasure without significant input. The US government needs to return to a policy of working with, listening to, and even learning from allies, as transpired in Kosovo, despite all the kicking and screaming that often accompanies group decision-making. Maybe then America will get the much-needed military and financial support in the crucial fight against the Taliban.
Third, the US administration and the aforementioned allies together should develop a coherent strategy for engaging and working with the regional players in an expanded contact group. This would include China, India, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Such a group could play a fundamental role in "draining the swamp" of extremist militants from the region and help prevent further horrific terrorist attacks, as recently occurred in Mumbai. The contact group could also promote regional trade agreements and encourage cross-border commerce, critical for stability and development in this impoverished region. Even Iran has played a fairly positive role in Afghanistan, not only during the Bonn process, but also in terms of reconstruction activities. Yet there is no agreed-on framework for involving these actors in a constructive manner, while there are ample opportunities for any of them to become spoilers.
Finally, and critically, the people and governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan need to become full partners in this policy and approach. Too many decisions are being made on their behalf, without their involvement. The ultimate goal is to empower national governments to strengthen governance and fight extremism and corruption on their own terms. Both countries are too big and too complex to allow their development and security to be "off-shored." Pakistanis and Afghanis need to be fully in the lead, with international partners in an integrated, supporting role. Only then will joint efforts translate into peace and security.
There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama's universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls "the common good". This is hardly news.
The new United States president faces challenges in almost every area of the world. The most urgent and unavoidable are Palestine-Israel, Iran, and Pakistan-Afghanistan.
First, a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel must become Barack Obama's top foreign-policy priority. The longer the Palestinians remain a displaced people, the more dangerous the world becomes. Over time, Palestine has acquired the status of a cause celebre for political Islam and a symbol of America siding with the powerful against the weak. Unless the Palestinians are seen to get a modicum of justice, the entire middle east is doomed to eternal cycles of violence and destruction.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at
Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan
Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy on openDemocracy:
"Bizarre new world" (17 September 2001)
"Were we hijacked on 9/11?" (10 September 2002)
"Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet" (3 March 2004)
"The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden" (16 February 2006) - with Zia MianThe fact that there is bitter rivalry between the two main Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah, makes the problem ever harder to solve. But as long as the issue of statehood is unresolved and conflict continues, the more Muslim anger over Palestine will mutate into new and still less predictable forms. I estimate that the crushed body of every dead Palestinian child in Gaza, flashed on TV screens across the world, costs the United States about $100 million in terms of the protection it must buy to defend itself against retributive Islamist terrorism.
Second, the US must talk to Iran. As Iran gets closer to making a nuclear weapon, there is a danger that a war of words between Washington and Tehran could trigger a real war is real. The choice as US secretary of state of Hillary Clinton, who made hawkish statements about Iran during the election campaign (echoed in part by Obama himself) on balance increases the danger.
Iran's quest for nukes is dangerous and condemnable, and sanctions are quite justifiable in my opinion. But the United States lacks a moral argument for war, because of its own nuclear stance and in light of the fact that it provided Iran with the country's initial nuclear capability during the Shah's rule. Moreover, the US has to various degrees rewarded several countries that have made nukes surreptiously: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Before and after more hardline statements on the campaign trail, Obama has offered to negotiate with Iran: a good proposal that he should carry through.
After all, nothing has been gained by rejecting Iran's numerous overtures, from the comprehensive approach suggested by Tehran in 2003 to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President George W Bush in 2006. North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 also showed that US refusals to hold one-on-one talks only reinforced the problem. By contrast, nuclear negotiations in exchange for oil have partially succeeded in halting the North Korean nuclear developments.
Third, the US must take seriously the impact of "collateral damage" on civilian populations as it pursues the war against Islamists.
Since I am deeply fearful of Taliban successes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I have mixed feelings about Obama's planned "surge" in Afghanistan. But heavy use of airpower has led to large numbers of non-combatant casualties. Often the coalition forces refuse to acknowledge such deaths; when confronted with incontrovertible evidence, they apologise and issue miserably small compensation. This approach swells the Taliban's ranks. If there is to be any chance of containing the Taliban menace, the coalition forces must set zero innocent civilian casualties as their goal.
In relation to the larger global environment, America needs an attitudinal change. It must repudiate grand imperial designs as well as its exceptionalism. The notion of total planetary control through "full-spectrum dominance" guided the previous Republican administration well before 9/11. The Democrats, many of whom later turned against the Iraq war, limit their criticisms to the strategy and conduct of the war, the lies and disinformation dispensed by the White House, suspicious deals with defence contractors - rather than its very conception and underlying attitudes (see Paul Rogers, "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).
Barack Obama must convince Americans of the need to obey international laws and etiquette, that they do not have some divine mission to fulfil and that its sinking economy cannot afford such fantasies now or in the future.
The lengthy political transition in the United States is over. The perils facing the new president are clear. He will need much more than rhetoric to meet them.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have travelled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."
The reference is to Tom Paine's Crisis No 1, which George Washington ordered read to his men in December 1776 before crossing the Delaware to attack George III's Hessian mercenaries, in a crucial turning point in the American revolutionary war.
The task of redecorating the Oval Office includes remembering and re-imagining trans-Atlantic relations
One of the first jobs of an American president is to redecorate the Oval Office. Each new president is expected to update the furniture, replace the carpet, repaint the walls and woodwork as well as add some new paintings. There are also the sculptures, usually three or four. So when he moves in today, President Barack Obama will have to decide what to do with a bronze bust of Winston Churchill.
The bust is on loan from the British government and was installed by his predecessor, President George W Bush in 2001. Bush explains it in an official White House tour video [my transcript]: "my friend the prime minister of Great Britain heard me say that I greatly admired Winston Churchill and so he saw to it that the government loaned me this and I am most honored to have this Jacob Epstein bust of Winston Churchill. I like Churchill because he was a great war leader. He was resolute, he was tough, he knew what he believed, and he had a fabulous sense of humor. And in this job, believe me, you've gotta have a sense of humor. Otherwise it makes for the days awfully long and for the nights awfully short." (Predictably, the video inspired a spoof.)
Officially, Her Majesty's government loaned the bust to Bush for the duration of his term. At the end of this month, the bust can therefore go back to the Government Art Collection on Cockspur Street. But there is little to prevent Obama from retaining the sculpture, just like there was little that prevented him from retaining Bush's Defense Secretary and several other "holdover" officials.
Downing Street, always ready to cultivate Britain's "special relationship" with America, would probably happily extend the loan to another four to eight years. After all, no figure in the world better symbolizes the "special relationship" than Churchill. In his last Lord Mayor's Banquet Speech, Prime Minister Gordon Brown explained it yet again: "Winston Churchill described the joint inheritance of Britain and America as not just a shared history but a shared belief in the great principles of freedom, and the rights of man - of what Barack Obama described in his election night speech as the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope."
Will Obama keep his Churchill? Obama's speech writers would certainly appreciate it. In the United States, the signifier "Churchill" is as positively evaluated as "Obama" in the United Kingdom right now. As Christopher Hitchens observes, in America, Churchill "occupies an unrivaled place in the common stock of reference, ranging from the mock-heroic to the downright kitsch." The man voted the Greatest Briton in a 2002, argues Hitchens, "can be quoted even more safely than Lincoln in that he was never a member of any American faction."
Good politics is not the only reason for Obama to retain the bust. Last year, the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered that Obama is in fact related to Churchill. (The researchers also found that Obama is a ninth cousin of Brad Pitt and a distant relative to five former U.S. presidents, including George W Bush.) So why not keep a bust of a distant family member which happens to be a great war leader that most Americans love?
As it is often the case, family history cuts both ways. In Kenya, the land of Obama's father, the signifier "Churchill" carries nothing but negative connotations. Several times in his long political career, Churchill was responsible for Britain's empire, which until 1963 included Kenya. It was his government which in 1952 declared the so-called Kenya Emergency - an attempt to quash a rebellion against colonial rule known as Mau Mau. For the next eight years, suspected rebels were routinely detained, tortured, hanged and shot. According to Caroline Elkins, the colonial soldiers killed between fifteen and twenty thousand Kenyans in combat, while up to one hundred thousand perished in the detention camps. One of those who endured torture in a British prison was Hussein Onyango Obama, US president's Kenyan grandfather. Traces of this story can be found in Obama's memoir Dreams from my Father as well as in a few interviews; much more is sure to come. For now, it behooves us to remember it when Obama sends his Churchill packing. The time for the Anglo-American "special relationship" to move beyond Churchill is long overdue.
Srdjan Vucetic is Dillard Fellow in International Studies at Pembroke College, Cambridge
The inspiring and moving oratory of Barack Obama has become a prominent part of the soundtrack of political life in the world as well as the United States during his long march to the presidency. Now, after his inauguration, the real business starts.
Among the many challenges awaiting the new Obama administration is the feeble state of US public service, which is failing to attract the best new talent
The ground-breaking election of Barack Obama and the many foreign, domestic, and economic challenges currently facing the United States have led to a political awareness and activism not seen in many years. Ahead of tomorrow's much-anticipated inauguration, Obama's team announced the establishment of "Organizing for America", an organization that seeks to shape the inchoate energy generated by his presidential campaign. Obama often repeated his desire to "open the doors of democracy" to the American people. Such endeavours aim to make that vague aspiration more concrete.
But while Obama appeals to the general public, the institutions of public service remain in crisis. One underappreciated aspect of the Democratic presidential victory in November was just how untenable - physically, just as much as intellectually and politically - continued Republican rule would have been. As one former government official, who participated in transitions dating back to the 1970s, opined prior to the election: "There's just no more talent available on the Republican side to fill all these positions; they're all burned out."
Talent can't be taught, but it can be coaxed along. The US government, along with the public sphere writ large, needs to attract and "coax along" the most talented individuals. At present, though, the realities of gaining public service employment make the barrier to entry for young individuals extremely high.
A problem of access
Without a fundamental change in the compensation and security clearance strictures of the public sector, the most talented young individuals will forego public service, to the detriment of the nation as a whole. It behooves Obama - who promised to make public service "a central cause" of his presidency - to take a serious look at how the potential appointments of the future are thwarted even before their government careers begin.
The high barrier to entry begins when one is still in college. As every person putting together his first resume knows, internships are the building blocks upon which successful job applications rest. And yet, those fortunate enough to receive worthwhile internship offers face a daunting challenge: money. Most internships in the public sector, whether on Capitol Hill or for non-governmental organizations, are unpaid.
The whole process is a form of indentured servitude, which plays off the fact that the young person is working for free against the prestige and contacts of the organization. For those college students working their way through school or supporting themselves during the summer breaks, this is often not a tenable option. Thus, very early on, the playing field is already skewed towards those with independent means.
The very same dynamic is still at play even after graduation. Entry level positions in most public sector jobs - for example, as staff assistants on Capitol Hill - pay less than a living wage. While a certain level of sacrifice is expected, penury should not be. If a young and ambitious "go-getter" is lucky, his or her parents usually end up covering the rent and the student loan bills. For those for whom family backing is not an option, then public service - however well-intentioned - is simply not feasible.
No noble ends without the means
In a world where the cost of a college degree has risen 439 percent over the past twenty-five years (compared to a 147 percent rise in the median family income), the financial reality of paying back one's loans oftentimes takes precedence over one's passions. Moreover, the increasing dilution of an undergraduate degree due to more people attending college - a positive development, to be sure - has meant that graduate degrees and their concomitant costs have become necessities, not luxuries.
Based on an exponentially higher cost of living (including for college), stagnant wages, and a more competitive job market, this is clearly not the reality of our parent's generation (or even that of Obama's). Viewed in the context of public sector employment, it shouldn't come as a surprise that a certain individual - usually somewhat affluent - is more likely to choose public service. Overall talent, as well as a more representative cross-section of society, is surely the biggest loser.
The second aspect of entry-level government service which needs to be reassessed is in the field of national security. Despite the federal government's legitimate security concerns, the clearance process as currently conceived is too long, too onerous, and ultimately counterintuitive.
Spend enough time amongst Washington's young foreign policy professionals, and the anecdotes one hears begin to sound less like individual sob stories and more like a pattern.
For instance, take the college senior who applied for an opening at one of the government's myriad intelligence agencies. Her security clearance eventually did come through - two years later. By that time, the position she had applied for had, predictably, already been filled; she went on to work for a contractor in the private-sector.
Or take the highly-qualified young professional, American-born and of Iranian-descent, who applied for a position at the State Department. It took her a year to learn that she in fact had not gotten the clearance the job required. In the interim, she took up an internship - unpaid - at a non-governmental organization; she subsequently went into the private-sector as well.
There are two points that need to be emphasized. First, to endure the often lengthy limbo period of the clearance process requires a bedrock of financial means. (Not to mention a steely willingness to be in professional purgatory until the process runs its course.)
And second, the clearance process, almost by definition, makes it that much more difficult for qualified candidates with non-traditional backgrounds to pass. Counter-intuitively, those with extensive travel experience abroad or with foreign roots - that is, those more likely to have the skills necessary for foreign policy - are at a disadvantage in relation to a candidate who has had, since birth, the same address in middle America.
At a time when the number of translators, linguists, and area specialists in public service is completely inadequate, the process through which the government hires those responsible for formulating foreign policy and defending national security is distorted and ill-conceived.
Among Obama's to-do list after 20 January, revamping the way young people enter public service should be included. More funding - for direct increases in salary, additional scholarships and debt forgiveness programs - should be considered in order to attract the best possible candidates to the public sector. Reform of the security clearance process should be considered in order to allow the brightest individuals to enter the foreign policy establishment.
It's an irony of the economic and bureaucratic realities that, given his financial and personal background, Obama would have great trouble entering government today as a young staffer. It would be tragic if the next Obama were dissuaded from serving the country, and instead opted to become a corporate lawyer. Government desperately needs just such talents.
Neri Zilber is a writer on international politics based in New York City
Investing in physical infrastructure is not enough if an opportunity to build real "social infrastructure" in the country is squandered
Imagine a place where doctors still do
house calls. Or where childcare is affordable, professional and widely
available. Or where all new parents are paid to stay home and care for their
newborns, and receive a monthly stipend to pay for diapers, food and other
Or imagine a place where a young person doesn't have to mortgage her or his future by going in debt to pay for a college education. Or where everyone has quality, affordable health care, and all workers receive two months worth of paid vacation and holidays every year, and paid sick leave too, as well as a generous retirement.
To most Americans, such a place sounds like Never-Never land. But to most Europeans, Canadians and the Japanese, this sounds like standard operating procedure. It is important for Americans to keep this in mind as we listen to President Barack Obama announce the goals of his new administration.
For example, in announcing his economic stimulus plan, Obama unveiled some badly needed measures, including rebuilding of roads, bridges and schools and increased renewable energy production. But his American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan misses an opportunity to more directly invest in the greatest "infrastructure" of all - the American people.
Public investment in physical infrastructure as a way of creating jobs and boosting consumer spending is a sensible strategy. However, it leaves American workers stranded by the same "ownership society" ideology that has been part of the problem. The fact is that the next economic recovery will be followed at some point by the next downturn. Without a different type of intervention, Americans will remain lacking in the type of institutional support and "social infrastructure" that is crucial for providing economic security in this uncertain age of global capitalism.
A more comprehensive solution has been crafted in many European countries, Japan and Canada. In these nations, a small amount of each employee's and business' income is redirected into a pool of funding to pay for universal social infrastructure like affordable childcare, paid parental leave, paid sick leave, free or nearly free-higher education, affordable health care, job training programs, adequate vacation, sufficient retirement pensions and more. Providing such benefits to all residents lays a much stronger foundation for the middle classes in these countries than anything comparable in the United States.
For example, the US is one of only five countries that do not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave (the others being a few impoverished African nations and Papua New Guinea). Fathers are granted paid leave in 65 countries, but the US guarantees fathers - as well as mothers - nothing. A majority of Americans are not even eligible for unpaid parental leave.
is also one of only a handful of nations that have no national law guaranteeing
paid sick leave, leaving some 46 million workers - 43 percent of the private
industry labour force - without paid sick days. At least 145 nations provide
paid sick days, since if you're sick, it's preferable to stay home and take
care of yourself. In the US,
the ill are forced to show up to work and infect their co-workers.
American detractors have decried this European, Canadian and Japanese way as that of a "welfare" state and "creeping socialism", but nothing could be further from the truth. A better name for this system is a "workfare" state, since all of these supports are part of a comprehensive system of institutions geared toward keeping individuals and families healthy, productive and working. By building a safety net beneath their workers, those countries that have embraced certain social democratic reforms have put some meat on the bones of "family values".
But in America's
"ownership society", you are truly left "on your own". In
theory, this should lead to Americans paying less in taxes and having greater
discretionary income, but this has been mostly an illusion. In return for their
taxes, people in these other countries are receiving a whole host of benefits
and services for which Americans end up paying extra for, out-of-pocket, via
fees, premiums, deductibles and tuition, in addition to their taxes. When you sum up the total balance sheet, you discover that many
Americans are paying out just as much as their counterparts in other nations,
but receive a lot less for their money.
Properly understood, these workfare supports are a necessary part of infrastructure investment, just like the maintenance of physical infrastructure such as bridges and roads or spending on energy efficiency. This social infrastructure investment also creates jobs and stimulates consumer spending, even as it invests in the most precious resource of all - people.
By narrowly emphasising investment in physical infrastructure in his economic recovery plan, Obama fails to recognise how social infrastructure must be a crucial part of the mix. A failure to invest in social infrastructure during this critical time will leave the American middle class on the same shaky ground where it has always stood, vulnerable to the current as well as future economic downturns.
Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation. His book "Europe Rising" will be published by the University of California Press in 2009
Until the autumn of 2008 a political gambler
would have been given major odds by any bookie in America against a major
change in national and world government emerging from the corrupt backwaters of Louisiana.
Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here
Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly
For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here
After all, this is the state that re-elected Representative William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, even after he was caught by the FBI with $90,000 in marked currency in his freezer. This is the state in which a city magnified the destruction of a cataclysmic hurricane by re-electing a mayor proved both incompetent and self-serving, a man still to this day able to stonewall wrongdoing by literally cursing anyone who questions his word or authority. This is the state served by Representative David Vitter, still holding a death-grip on his seat in Congress after years of paying for the illegal sexual services of call-girls and strippers.
This is Louisiana
And yet the unimaginable has happened. It happened because of the unlikely collusion of three "regular" guys, all named secondarily, by or for someone else.
There is Piyush, and Anh, and... Gustav.
Who are respectively Governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, Representative-elect Anh "Joseph" Cao and... hurricane Gustav.
Piyush entered the game first, a brilliant and sincere young man of Indian origins who was selected to revitalise a decaying department of health by a distinctively retro-conservative Republican governor. Chief executive Mike Foster was a man who ran a plantation with an iron hand and rode his chromed Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work. He encouraged his protégé to run to succeed him, but Jindal was unsuccessful, beaten by Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who promptly had her political career destroyed by her handling of hurricane Katrina.
Through hard work and grassroots political acumen, Jindal eventually parlayed that first position into two terms in Congress, and finally into the same governorship he had coveted under Foster. He was successful, handsome, a moderate of sorts, he was America's first governor of Indian descent, and he was a first-generation American. That noted, he was immediately thrown into contention as a possible running mate for presidential hopeful John McCain.
Jindal reportedly turned down the offer, and McCain then disastrously decided that Jindal's complete opposite was really what America needed. Instead of the intellectual and intuitive man who had converted to Catholicism in his teens and considered the priesthood, who had attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, America needed an over-dressed and under-briefed rustic Alaskan soccer mom.
"You betcha", said Sarah Palin.
"Nope", said America.
McCain's choice gave Barack Obama what he needed to win the presidency in November.
Immediately after the election, Republicans saw Jindal for what he is, the anti-Palin, and in less than a week every news magazine and editorial writer in America began writing of him as the true "future of the Republican party".
A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:
"This is personal" (23 April 2007)
"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)
"Native to America" (26 September 2007)
"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)
"Windfall" (17 December 2007)
"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)
"Hardware madness: Katrina's three years" (24 August 2008)
"Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)
"Loot" (8 October 2008)
"Nine-inch nails in the White House" (31 October 2008)
"Living the American movie" (5 November 2008)
Newsweek, among others, said: "There are plenty of rising stars in the GOP. But in the wake of Barack Obama's victory on Nov. 4, none has attracted as much speculation, curiosity and unapologetic hype as Jindal."
Something else was originally scheduled to be on the ballot that November Tuesday, but was nowhere to be seen: the general election for the second congressional district House of Representatives seat from Louisiana.
Another unschooled entity, this one named Gustav by a committee of scientists, had already intervened in early September, crashing ashore in Louisiana to scatter residents and disrupt the scheduled Democratic Party primary for the House seat. The September election was set back to the November date. So instead of the general election that would encompass all parties, the presidential election Tuesday was, for the House election, merely the Democratic primary, and was again won handily by indicted Representative William Jefferson.
That dismal outcome was inevitable. Louisiana's second district was engineered as a blatant gerrymander to create the first majority African- American district in the state. That majority was inevitably parceled by power brokers into political action groups like SOUL, BOLD and COUP, all working organisations that guaranteed voter turnout of their members in return for tax-deductible contributions.
But they didn't have to work hard in November. With Obama's charismatic candidacy, there was no problem in turning out an unprecedented number of African-American voters in the second district. Jefferson's black opponents were overwhelmed as the skewed logic of empowerment prevailed, i.e., "He may be a crook, but he's our crook." His sole remaining opponent was a young attractive Hispanic woman with no real experience - she had been a TV news reporter prior to her run against Jefferson. The race was his.
But Jefferson still had the general election, now rescheduled to December, an election which the second district political organisations completely disregarded - they thought they had won in November, when Obama won, and that was that.
The future is Cao
Come December signs started sprouting along streets, signs touting a person named Anh "Joseph" Cao, the Republican candidate, and lone remaining major party candidate to face Jefferson. They were formidable signs, colourful and sturdy. They cost lots of money, which was suddenly being supplied not only by the national party, but by locals as well. People began asking who the fellow was, and most I knew simply said he was "Jefferson's only competition", so he was worth supporting, just to end the shame.
I researched a bit: Anh immigrated as a child to the United States from Vietnam, earned advanced degrees in physics and philosophy, like Jindal embraced a brief consideration of the priesthood, then took a law degree from Loyola University, where I teach. His specialty was immigration law. He stands just over five feet tall and is extremely shy, though articulate.
I have never before in my life voted for a Republican. But faced with the alternative of the further disgrace and inaction of another term from "Dollar Bill", I voted for Cao. The district's political action groups, thinking the race was in the bag, did not deign to come to the polls.
The rest of us did.
Cao won, the first person of Vietnamese extraction to be elected to Congress. Even his own people couldn't believe it. When they first started arriving in Louisiana after the war, there was resistance. Local residents did not want a wave of unknown foreigners. But slowly in New Orleans the idea of a people who loved the subtropics, fished for a living and drank beer, had rice as a staple of their diet and knew how to bake French bread - well, they seemed to fit right in. Most were French-style Catholics and formed a community in New Orleans East around their churches, though the Buddhist contingent congregated on the Westbank of the city.
It hasn't been that long since even being a Catholic or speaking French was a considered a serious detriment to getting elected to statewide office in Louisiana. Just a few decades ago it seemed a miracle that a Cajun French Catholic named Edwin Edwards became governor. Of course this is the man now sitting in a federal penitentiary, awaiting a pardon from the outgoing president, imprisoned for transgressions committed during his tenure as the state's highest elected official.
But suddenly there was Cao. And, like Jindal, the reaction was immediate:
"Less than 24 hours after his upset defeat of a longtime Democratic congressman from New Orleans, Anh ‘Joseph' Cao found the weight of the entire Republican Party resting on his diminutive shoulders.
"The chairman of the Republican National Committee said Cao's election Saturday night showed that, even battered and bruised from political drubbings in the past two years, Republicans ‘still know how to win elections.' House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was more blunt, issuing a memo Sunday declaring: ‘The future is Cao.'"
Even Senator David Vitter, the politician of hooker-for-hire fame, was trying to cleanse himself by attaching to the new representative in an interview headlined as "Disgraced Senator talks about election of Joseph Cao as an improvement to Louisiana's image."
A clean slate
So what does this dual anachronism matter? Is it even minutely significant in the long term? Jindal is a strong campaigner and has political savvy, which Cao despite his integrity and intellect does not possess. Jindal was helped in gaining his office by campaigning among Baptist and Pentecostal churches, "testifying" at many, in the process embracing traditional black religious culture.
Though Cao has even taken the step of applying for membership in Congress's Black Caucus, he has not been well-received, and African-American political organisations in Cao's district will not be caught sleeping again. Despite his possible good work, a new clean slate and a progressive outlook, the district that re-elected Jefferson ten times may be unwilling to let someone who is not of their number continue a second term in Washington. You can't count on a hurricane like Gustav every election.
Still it seems amazing that in a state known for white rural conservatism, in a party that has doggedly kept its franchise white and traditional and Protestant, voters find that they have elected two men of colour, and of foreign origin, who have both intellectual depth and an overriding passion in their beliefs.
And more amazingly these two men, who both speak in complete sentences, now have the nation's and world's attention as the "future" of the Republican party.
A party that would previously never have counted on anyone named Piyush or Anh... or Gustav.
The challenge Barack Obama faces is being compared with that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 1933 depression and of Abraham Lincoln at the start of the civil war. Another analogy suggests itself, with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. Then, in 1985, the USSR was at war, its economy stagnant, and the promise of the Communist dream sounded increasingly hollow. Now the U.S. is fighting two wars: one raging in the same hostile terrain of Afghanistan which saw the undoing of Soviet expansion, the other in Iraq. Begun under false pretext and in defiance of our key allies, it was said to aim at democratizing Iraq, but instead spurred religious and ethnic violence.
The enormous financial burden of the two wars-Joseph Stiglitz estimates it at $3 trillion--heavily contributed to the financial meltdown in the U.S.A. and disarray in global economy. Far from being a model for developing world, we now need to heal our own economy. Now it is America's turn to embark on overhauling its financial system, re-structuring its economy, re-inventing a more equitable government, re-examining its foreign strategy and re-thinking its basic assumptions about the world. In short, it is time for perestroika, American style. Call it transformation, as Obama does. But it must be done much better than Gorbachev's perestroika least the U.S.A. goes the way of the USSR.
It cannot be done without thinking out of the box of the Cold War mentality. But, as the war in Georgia has shown, this approach continues to poison U.S.-Russian relations.
The Russian rebuff to Georgia came after its repeated warnings against NATO expansion, after the bombing of Yugoslavia and the proclamation of Kosovo's independence. But it was Russia that was accused of reverting to the Soviet era Brezhnev doctrine. In fact, in his reckless attack on South Ossetia, Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili was inspired by U.S. abandonment, in the post-Communist era, of the strategy of peaceful resolution of conflicts in favor of the "shock and awe" bombardment of non-co-operative adversaries. This strategy has proved not only inhumane but also counter-productive.
Unless President-Elect Obama renounces this reliance on war as a means to achieve security for the United States and its allies, there is little chance that his presidency will produce a better world than the one President Bush left behind. It is incumbent upon European leaders, especially, those who refused to support U.S. in Iraq, to speak up and dissuade U.S. leaders from starting a new war and using bombing as the peace-maker of choice.
Let me now focus on the need to transform U.S. policy toward Russia. First of all, U.S. should abandon the fantasy of unipolar world domination foisted on the Bush administration by the neo-conservatives. Alas, many of our European allies were cajoled into accepting, however half-heartedly, U.S. hubris. Now we need to scale down U.S. and NATO military involvement abroad and rely on skilled diplomacy and leadership by example, not brute force or economic blackmail. We need to recognize that even though the U.S. is the only superpower, it is far from omnipotent. We need allies and partners, and that includes Russia.
We also need to recognize that many of our current problems with Russia are of our own making. Our failure to do good on the promise to disband NATO is one example. Our expansion of NATO to Russian borders is another. The decision to install an anti-missile "shield" in Poland and the Czech Republic is bound to cause more tensions.
Imposing the free market
We made mistakes even while helping post-communist Russia in its economic reform. In the 1990s, U.S. adopted an approach, espoused by Jeffrey Sachs, Andrei Shleifer, and Lawrence Summers, which amounted to clumsy efforts to impose on Russia the same free-market dogmatism that is at the root of today's global crisis. Under the misleading name of the "Washington consensus" this approach to globalizing Russia dominated the Clinton administration. Yet even in the World Bank there were prominent critics whose advice was ignored.
One was Joseph Stiglitz who challenged the orthodoxy of free-market fundamentalism with an alternative economic philosophy he called "a third way." Cognizant of the benefits of free-market, he has also recognized the important role governments can play in preventing its abuse by tycoon investors and mighty corporations. Stiglitz was squeezed out of the bank because of his views, even while being awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. Another critic was professor William Easterly who later authored the book with the meaningful title The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.
Free-market Healer, Heal Thyself
While lecturing Russia about the blessings of unfettered free market, we forgot the lessons taught us by Thomas Jefferson . In a letter to John Taylor in 1816, he warned that the "banking establishments," when left to their own devices, " are more dangerous than standing armies." Presciently, he foreswore "the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity" as "swindling futurity on a large scale." Jefferson knew that in a democracy the people, through its government, should have regulatory power over irresponsible bankers and investors. As the Bernard Madoff scandal has shown once again there are plenty of those ready to take the country for another Ponzi pyramid ride.
Not only did we fail to control our own banks, but we prescribed to Russia "shock therapy" that resulted in the establishment of the Seven Banks Misrule (Semibankirshchina -Семибанкирщина). In the mid 1990s they vied for the power with the Russian state. Thus, our meddling in Russia contributed to the rise of oligarchy and ascendancy of crooks and murderers. Only with the advent of Vladimir Putin to power in 1999, wrote the heroic Paul Klebnikov in his book Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia, did the government's "newfound zeal in going after crooks and criminals" begin to pay off. Klebnikov was murdered in Moscow in 2004, shortly after he was made the editor of Forbes Russia.
U.S.-sponsored "shock therapy" also resulted in untold suffering for the Russian people. It destroyed the universal health care system which Obama now promises to introduce in the States. The very notions of privatization, democratization, and globalization were discredited in the mind of the Russians who came to associate them with the "tricky" America. A huge cultural disconnect between the American givers and Russian receivers was inevitable due to the closed nature of Soviet society.
But on occasion this amounted to more than a disconnect. After all, the Harvard Institute of International Development allegedly received a federal grant for U.S. foreign policy considerations, as Janine Wedel has revealed. Her research exposed how Harvard's "best and brightest colluded with a Russian clan to create a system of tycoon capitalism that will plague the Russian people for decades." Harvard's grant for ‘foreign policy considerations' was not only given without open bidding-and thus in violation of free-market's rules. In its execution there were serious violations of U.S. law, with the result that Harvard was forced to repay the government the largest penalty in its history.
Meanwhile, Russia's economic conditions improved enough to make dependence on foreign loans unnecessary. Soon the Putin government managed to undo most harmful aspects of misbegotten reforms by curbing the power of the oligarchy and restoring the Russian state's sovereignty and prestige domestically and overseas. 
Alfred Kokh, a deputy prime minister in Boris Yeltsin's government, recalls that U.S. officials were so heavy-handed in dealing with Yeltsin that he "was perceived (by the Russian people) as a puppet of the West, his policies dictated by the US." No wonder that in the years to follow, the Putin government's efforts to assert Russian national interests vis-à-vis the U.S. have met with the overwhelming approval of the Russian people.
Changing the Cold War stereotypes
These Russian observations are echoed by a number of Americans. Suzanne Massie, a former adviser to President Reagan, condemned the Cold War era stereotypes that pervaded the U.S. approach to Russia during the post-Communist period and flared up again during the Georgian war. "For the past eight years there has been a rising chorus of Russia bashing, growing ever more strident. We seem to have fallen into seeing Russia exclusively as aggressor and expansive. We need to get over these stereotypes in a hurry."
Two former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, likewise deplored Russia-bashing and argued against the policy of isolating Russia, which such neocons, as John Bolton, have advocated in retaliation for Russia's alleged aggression in Georgia. "It is neither feasible nor desirable to isolate a country spanning one-eighth of the earth's surface, adjoining Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and possessing a stockpile of nuclear weapons comparable to that of the United States."
Across the ocean, Sir Roderic Lyne, a former UK ambassador to Moscow, offered similar advice on openDemocracy Russia, but for different reasons: "Isolation would consolidate power in the hands of the most unreconstructed elements in Russia; deprive the West of leverage; create a pressure-cooker in a huge and heavily-armed country; and drive us ever further away from the goal of a stable and cooperative relationship with Russia." Sir Roderic chose reasonable terms for a wide-ranging Russia-and-the-West debate that has been sorely missing in the mainstream media.
Russian responses to Sir Roderic were encouraging. Fyodor Lukyanov challenged the political elites, East and West, to transcend their national bias in favor of a broader global perspective. Alexei Arbatov suggested that Russia's "Military force [in the Caucasus] was used to great effect," but "now we should build on the new respect for Russia by acting with reasonable restraint and adopting a flexible and constructive diplomatic line towards the West."
Lilia Shevtsova was not so sanguine. She criticized her Russian colleagues: "Essentially, our authors, in offering us a Russian version of Realpolitik, are trying to prove to the West and to Russia that there is a need for new international rules of play. This means rules which would allow today's Russia with its corrupt authorities and ‘petrol' economy to survive and reproduce itself in comfort. And this would be tantamount to protecting Russia's "anti-liberal and anti-Western system."
Alas, Shevtsova applied her "liberal view" to Russia only, failing to consider a similar correlation between foreign and domestic policy in Western countries. Did she not hear that after the 9-11 attack Bush tried to rally the West to a "crusade" against Al-Qaida by proclaiming the Stalinesque motto that ‘those who are not with us, are against us'? Does she not know that, on Bush's initiative, The Patriot Act was then passed which has restricted civil liberties in the United States more than during the Cold War when our adversaries were not only considerably more powerful than Al Qaida, but also had much a large following inside the United States?
Scholars advising their governments on international relations must be watchful of the dynamic correlation between foreign and domestic policy even in the most democratic countries. Ancient Greeks knew that any form of government, including democracy, has a tendency to degenerate. We, too, know that the eternal vigilance against enemies of freedom, both foreign and domestic, is the price we have to pay for the blessings of liberty. As Shevtsova seems oblivious of Western concerns with the preservation of liberty , one would doubt her credentials as a "liberal." Her views seem more consistent with those of the neo conservatives.
Neo-con's Media Megaphones
Now the neo-conservatives seem to be re-grouping to take charge of U.S. foreign policy under Obama. In fact, several neo-con columnists were elated by Obama's appointments. This makes the liberals worry whether Obama will be able to carry out the transformation he promised. Teresa Stack, president of The Nation magazine, the flagship of the liberal-left movement that voted solidly for Obama, reminds its readers: "Neocons and their corporate mainstream media megaphone are prepared to do everything in their power to thwart progressive change. We can't afford to take change for granted."
Indeed, it was the "mainstream media megaphones" that fanned hysterical russophobia during the Georgian-Russian conflict. They regurgitated comparisons of the Russian action to Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. They also largely marginalized scholars like Mark Almond, a British historian, who found Russia's rebuff to Georgia fully legitimate. With greater justification, he compared the Russian action with Britain's retaliation gave to Argentine aggression in the Falklands in 1982. No great power will retreat forever, he quoted Kissinger. Indeed, after two decades of endless retreats under constant pressure from the West, Russia finally decided it can no longer retreat and hit back.
But hitting back is not a strategy. Neither is U.S. mass media hysteria. That's why Russia, the EU and the United States need to address the common concern for the prevention of armed conflicts along the Russian borders and elsewhere in the world, least they escalate into a major conflagration involving nuclear powers.
Hold Obama to his Promise
Now that Obama is about to be inaugurated, it is important to remind him of the transformation he promised to deliver. It has to be toward a more efficient, fair, and vibrant society at home and a less confrontational, less expensive, but more prudent and cooperative U.S. policy abroad.
The new policy toward Russia must include:
- Abandoning the fantasy of U.S. unipolar world domination and recognizing Russia's legitimate national security concerns;
- Abiding by international law and work within the established organizations such as the U.N., EU, OSCE, WTO, World Bank and IMF until they can be revamped to conform to the new reality;
- Returning to negotiations with Russia on all Cold War legacy issues, such as America's abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Russia's repudiation of START II;
- Halting NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine or, at least, provide a ten years moratorium on such expansion;
- Cooperating with Russia in halting proliferation of nuclear weapons;
- Coordinating efforts against international piracy and terrorism, as well as against global warming and to protect the Earth's biosphere.
The New York Times described the election of Obama as a catharsis and return to the American dream that was destroyed--politically, economically and socially--under Bush. Obama's new appointments bear little signs of new thinking. They may be pragmatic in the sense of party politics, but lack a vision of the evolving global community and the role the United States and the West should play in it. As Gorbachev's perestroika showed, any attempt at radical transformation is risky. It's better to have the Russians among our cheer leaders and friends, not as our opponents or detractors.